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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Real estate pro David Couch’s vision for a pastoral development divides a Triad suburb

Real estate pro David Couch’s vision for a pastoral development divides a Triad suburb.

As soon as he was old enough to drive, David Couch discovered he enjoyed raising beef cattle more than mowing yards in Asheboro, where his father was a dentist and his mother served on City Council. He bought calves at auction and nursed them with a bottle. An elderly widow let the teenager graze his cows on her pastures in Randolph County. In exchange, he tended her property.

“I actually liked the hard work,” says Couch, who turns 61 in July. “I just felt free. That’s when I knew that farming would play a part in my life.”

Couch grew up about 40 miles from Summerfield in Asheboro. He is a graduate of Wake Forest University, where he has made significant donations.

Success in real estate has enabled him to pursue that passion at Summerfield Farms, an events venue and working farm where he raises cattle on the nearly 1,000 acres he’s acquired over the past 25 years. It’s among the trophies collected as Couch emerged as one of the state’s most prominent residential real estate developers.

After starting out selling town houses in Greensboro, he co-founded High Point–based Blue Ridge Cos. with partner Chris Dunbar in 1997. They have developed more than $2 billion of projects, including 11,500 apartment units at about 40 sites, mostly in the Carolinas and Virginia and with a buy-and-hold approach. Blue Ridge also has a general contracting business and has developed commercial properties largely focused in the West Wendover Avenue-N.C. 68 area in Greensboro and High Point.

Summerfield Farms in northwest Guilford County is where Couch lives with his wife, Stephanie Quayle, a country singer and songwriter whom he met in 2012 and married three years later. It features a refurbished barn with rough-hewn beams and walls that is the centerpiece of their events business. The enterprise hosts horse riding clinics for children, stages weddings under the sprawling branches of an ancient oak (he named it Little Tree) and attracts food trucks and live music for families to hang out on a grassy lawn. A marketplace store sells grass-fed beef from his Red Devon herd and locally produced food.

If Couch would stick to raising cows and hosting weddings, he’d get along fine with most everybody in rural Summerfield. The town of about 11,100 has a growing cohort of professionals, who live in the town’s many $1 million-plus houses, and drive past mobile homes and other modest dwellings on the 20-minute southbound commute to Greensboro.

Couch didn’t become a real estate magnate without vision and a passion for moving dirt, however. His beautiful property is in the path of progress because of the Triad’s successful economic development efforts. For several years, Couch has promoted a plan for higher density housing in Summerfield, including proposals for its first apartments. 

In a town that has historically limited development to lots of at least one acre, the effort has sparked a pummeling by critics who’ve outnumbered Couch supporters in repeated town meetings and slammed him on social media. They’ve dismissed advice from nationally recognized designers working for Couch, describing them as outsiders spouting views that would diminish Summerfield’s rural character.

The opposition has prompted town officials to delay Couch’s plans, which has only intensified his resolve. He’s waiting for the tide to turn, with apparent backing from one of the state’s most influential politician. He also is counting on two societal megatrends: The Triad, like most metro areas, is in desperate need of more housing, while Summerfield faces increasing pressure to diversify its racial and socio-economic diversity. 

Berger backing
Couch fits on either side of the cultural divide. He lives large, with a ranch in Montana and periodic multimillion dollar donations to various beneficiaries, including Wake Forest University, where he punted in football and played catcher in baseball. The Deacons’ baseball stadium is named after him and often called “The Couch.” He rarely shaves, even when he speaks at town meetings, and favors a wardrobe of denim in different shades of blue atop beat-up brown boots.

To press his case, Couch has sought help from state lawmakers, including state Senate President Phil Berger, to limit Summerfield’s ability to regulate his development. Some of Couch’s foes are so incensed that they’d probably prefer to skewer him than enjoy a marbled steak from one of his cows.

“It’s like water off a duck’s back,” Couch says of the criticism. “I don’t take it in.” 

Couch says he wants to preserve Summerfield’s beauty, at least on his property. Over two decades, he foresees his planned development, Villages of Summerfield Farms, emerging from the rolling landscape of fields and woods. The clustering of an undetermined number of apartments, town homes and cottages would allow him to preserve half of the property, including scenic views and rural vistas, some located far off roads and guarded from public view.

Couch had a low profile for years as he assembled one of the state’s biggest apartment portfolios. The Summerfield project put him in the headlines.

For years, Couch protected his privacy at his farmland, posting no trespassing signs to discourage deer hunting and fishing. Then about a decade ago, he agreed to host an event for a Greensboro nonprofit. His barn was transformed from manure on the dirt floor in the morning into a venue for cocktails in the evening. The socializing stretched as far as Rascal’s Ridge, a grassy knoll where one of his hunting dogs is buried.

“People had the time of their lives,’’ Couch recalls. “I just saw so much joy and decided then to be less concerned about keeping people out and more interested in bringing people here to share. That’s where I got the idea that one of these days I will probably develop my property so that people from all walks of life can enjoy this open space.’’

As he drove around his property, Couch stopped his Ford pickup truck on a road cutting a pasture in half. He used a towering oak to illustrate how he wants to develop differently from Summerfield’s main housing pattern of big houses sitting on 1-acre lots in cul-de-sac subdivisions.

“Instead of building 10 or 20 McMansions, where everybody is looking at the same tree, we would place smaller homes back in the wooded areas,” Couch says. “People who own a quarter-acre could enjoy all 1,000 acres.’’ 

Lifestyles ruined?
Many Summerfield residents don’t share Couch’s enthusiasm. Some of his most vocal critics live in nearby subdivisions such as Armfield and Henson Farms, and on generational family holdings that abut Couch’s land.

“I don’t want this mess right next to me,” says Priscilla Olinick,  who moved back to Summerfield in 2014 with her husband, Matt, to raise their two sons. Their children are the fifth generation of her family to live on property adjacent to Couch’s land.

Olinick has become a leader in the opposition to Couch. “We are said to be exclusionary, elitist and racist, but I don’t think that’s the case,” she says. “People who have worked very hard their entire lives to be able to achieve a lifestyle that Summerfield provides are now going to be at the hands of David Couch. Potentially, that is going to be ruined.”

Living on roughly 25 acres next to her parents and other relatives means “privacy, safety, nature,” she says. “It’s peace and quiet. It’s our homestead; it’s our place of respite. It is truly a rural lifestyle. We can camp in our backyard; we can have our little garden; my boys can run around barefoot. That is precious to me.”

Twice over the past year and a half, Summerfield’s Town Council denied Couch’s application to amend its development ordinance to accommodate higher density housing on his 973 acres.

During public meetings that dragged on late into the night, opponents unfurled a long list of worries: increasing crime, traffic, school crowding and the disappearance of more rural scenery.

Critics also take aim at Couch’s proposal to extend water and sewer services to his development from Greensboro or another nearby municipality. That would end Summerfield’s reliance on wells and septic fields and, potentially usher in more higher-density development.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth over those years, but it’s been natural growth,” says Danny Nelson, a longtime resident. “But the rapid growth Couch is proposing is going to require more government and more schools.”

“The crime rate is going to go up, so there’s going to have to be more law enforcement,” Nelson says. “In the end, it’s going to come back to the taxpayers to pay for extra roads and firefighters and deputies.”

More than 300 people attended a February town meeting that denied Couch’s plans. Opponents wore red, including Cathy Storch, who said the project would imperil Summerfield’s “peace and quiet.”

Earlier this year, after the Town Council rebuffed him for the second time, Couch decided against waiting another year to try again, as required by the town’s development ordinance. Instead, Couch sought support from Berger to de-annex his property from Summerfield. Berger lives in Eden, about 25 miles north of Couch’s property.

Couch’s request energized his opponents to a new level. On social media, critics branded him as a greedy profiteer. A council resolution in March says de-annexation would remove property “from the heart of Summerfield,” putting the land under the jurisdiction of Guilford County, which permits apartment construction.

Couch countered that Summerfield had trampled on his property rights, prompting his appeal to state leadership. “Summerfield has left me no option,” he said.

Town officials point to a development ordinance adopted in 2021 that creates some new options for higher density housing, based partly on Couch’s proposal. But he calls the changes “impractical and unusable.” His plan to build quadplexes wouldn’t be feasible under the town’s rules for open space and septic fields.

Couch is “uncompromising,” Olinick says. “No compromise we’ve been willing to share with him has been good enough.”

The developer has agreed to reduce his proposed apartments from about 1,200 units to 600. Development would occur over two decades, lessening disruptions, he says. Opponents say that just means 20 years of negative impacts.

At the urging of Berger, lobbyists and lawyers representing Couch and Summerfield met this spring in hopes of reaching a compromise. It appears little progress was made. As of mid-June, the de-annexation matter was pending at the General Assembly.

Summerfield Farms’ market carries organic produce, grass-fed beef from Couch’s farm, beverages and handcrafted, local products.

Housing Crunch
In May, Summerfield Mayor Tim Sessoms said officials want more information from the developer. That frustrates Couch, who says the town’s approach is similar to the “four corners” slow-down offense used in college basketball in the 1970s. “They’re indicative of a town that has no interest in negotiating and no real interest in the value of my land and my designs for it,’’ he says.

Couch believes Summerfield’s one-house-per-acre zoning rules make the town vulnerable to federal fair housing litigation. White people represent 88.5% of Summerfield’s population, compared with less than 50% in Greensboro. Last year, the former president of the Greensboro branch of the NAACP sent a letter to the town manager saying that Summerfield was a “passive participant in exclusionary zoning practices” and was “grossly segregated,” The Assembly reported in May. The town sought discussions with the NAACP, which haven’t occurred, the publication says.

Housing prices in Summerfield are out of reach of many people earning moderate incomes. The average price of a house in Summerfield and adjoining Oak Ridge totaled $533,267 in the first quarter, declining 4.5% from $558,201 a year earlier, according to Triad Multiple Housing Service figures.

Earlier this year, Berger cited the need for more affordable housing in the Triad, with demand spurred by economic development around Piedmont Triad International Airport. Summerfield “is surrounded by billions of dollars in economic development,” he said. “As our area continues to grow, additional housing is urgently needed so the nurses, teachers, first responders, and construction workers our area relies on can live in the places they serve.”

Couch agrees that Summerfield needs to encourage more housing at varying prices to accommodate the Triad’s expansions. Several thousand jobs are likely to be created in the next few years by the Boom Supersonic aircraft factory near Piedmont Triad International Airport, Toyota’s hybrid electric battery manufacturing facility in Randolph County and other employers.

“We’re having the most serious housing crisis we’ve ever seen,” Couch says. “Tens of millions of dollars have been spent recruiting industry to an area that’s lost its industry — tobacco, textiles, airlines and furniture.”

That work has paid off in creating a major transportation and logistics hub that offers many high-paying industrial jobs, creating growth akin to the Charlotte and Triangle regions, he adds. “It’s now the day in the Triad that we’ve worked so hard for,’’ he says. “We can’t afford to fumble at the 1-yard line with land-use regulating policies like the one we have in Summerfield that discourage housing for the jobs that we’re attracting.’’

Couch’s project isn’t focused on affordability, the Summerfield mayor noted in a letter earlier this year. The developer envisions 11 villages with housing ranging from apartments and town houses to homes costing $2 million and more. Public trails would connect the neighborhoods and bisect large tracts of green space. 

“Are $1,600-and-up apartments affordable?” Mayor Sessoms asked. “Houses ranging from $350,000 to $2 million? Would the apartments proposed really serve an unmet need?”

Couch says he’s doing his part by offering subsidized rental rates for 5% percent of his apartments, or 30 units.

Couch began buying land in Summerfield in 1998. In a string of about 15 transactions since then, he’s assembled tracts stretching from one side of Summerfield to the other. Interstate 73 bisects his property, drawing traffic from Virginia and northward to Piedmont Triad International Airport, the center of the region’s aerospace recruiting efforts. He previously developed a 27-home subdivision, Farm at Summerfield, where a home recently sold for $778,000.

“Couch’s holdings are so vast,” Olinick says. Based upon the residential density that he’s proposing, she estimated that his development could lead to the doubling of Summerfield’s population over the next 20 years

Couch met Stephanie Quayle after she sang at an event in 2012 hosted by state Ag Commissioner Steve Troxler. They married in 2015. She has sung at the Grand Ole Opry and toured widely.

The region’s economic good fortunes dovetail with Couch’s plans to develop his property. Despite speculation by some critics that he will eventually sell out, Couch says he intends to develop his property so that others can enjoy its sweeping views of fields and woods. 

While Couch and Quayle spend most of their time at their Summerfield Farms home, they also own a house in Nashville where she pursues her music career, and the 460-acre ranch  near Bozeman, Montana. He bought the property from actor Dennis Quaid a decade ago.

Over the next few years, Couch is proposing to build a network of public trails connecting the various neighborhoods in the Villages of Summerfield Farms. The trails would also be accessible to people who don’t live on the property.

“The idea is to deliver an outdoor lifestyle,” Couch says. “I have enough land to do things differently.”  

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